Ely, Minn. – Stories inspire, heal and change lives. And when a storyteller finds the right listeners, the storyteller benefits, too.
Such was the case for a group of U.S. military veterans who traveled into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for four days in mid-June. The expedition was part of a program at Voyageur Outward Bound School outside of Ely focused on veterans and personal empowerment in life after the service. Since 2008, more than 5,000 veterans have participated in Outward Bound programs designed for them.
Led by instructors Kevin Morris and Sam Kujawa, the group camped at a different wilderness lake each day. Every morning, the instructors posed a general question for the veterans to think about. Later on, they would discuss it. None were required to talk.
The veterans were strangers to each other when the journey started, but they’re not strangers anymore. They also are bound by their shared experience of military life, something some civilians don’t fully understand.
Domenic Pierri, 32, of Des Plaines, Ill., served in Iraq and Germany. He is currently a social worker. He said the canoe expedition was a challenge outside his comfort zone but ultimately therapeutic. He said he has come to realize that a lot of military personnel have been conditioned to fear expressing their feelings.
“That’s part of the reason why a lot of vets come out with psychological issues,” he said.
Formerly stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Matt Brown, 33, said letting go of military life can be hard, and he is trying to fill the void with a different, honorable path. But finding it isn’t always easy, he said. He appreciated spending time in the wilderness and talking with comrades about how they handled problems similar to his.
“[Counseling] really doesn’t help because I don’t think you get the same effect just going into a room and talking to somebody that doesn’t really relate to you or is really not into the same thing you are,” said Brown, of Yadkinville, N.C.
Marine Corps veteran Dustin Sloan did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the group came together well. In particular, he said he bonded with two other Marines who addressed loss and death.
“They’ve seen stuff, too, and that helped me out. One of them told a story while we were sitting around and that was exactly what I’m going through now, just dealing with the loss of friends,” said Sloan, 29, of Hendersonville, Tenn. “[It gave] me a little motivation … ‘All right, I can do that, too’.”
Staff Sgt. Angela Harrison, 45, has been stationed at multiple overseas bases, but still is seeking solid ground of a different sort. The lone woman of the group, Harrison said before the outing she felt she was losing herself. The Army conditioned her to be a leader, but retirement was like stepping down.
“I was still in a military state of mind, and it turned people off. So I took off the boots and hung them up and I put on stilettos. But then once I did that, folks didn’t take me seriously and I found myself getting walked all over,” said Harrison, of Hope Mills, N.C.
She said she learned something from the perspective of each man on the expedition and headed home with a different, mentally prepared mind-set.
Graham Cashwell, 54, of Richmond, Va., is an officer in the Virginia Army National Guard. He spoke of how overseas veterans experience a shared purpose. But sometimes when they return stateside, they long for that purpose. Parts of civilian life don’t have the same significance. He’s tried to take that lesson and turn it into a strength.
“The key is to identify the shared purpose with your loved ones, your friends, maybe even co-workers and then accept each other in moving toward that shared purpose,” he said.
Maj. Mike Signori, 37, has served two tours in Iraq with the Massachusetts National Guard. He shared his thoughts on veteran resiliency — that ability to cope with adverse situations and adapt to change — and applying it to civilian life. Signori is working on balancing a sense of urgency from military life that doesn’t parallel the civilian world.
“I’m quick to make decisions because that’s what I’ve always been forced to,” said Signori, of Boston. “Now in the civilian side I can take more time, and kind of analyze things, and find out what a better compromise is for other people,” he said.
Matt Litherland, 31, an Ely resident, served in Iraq. He viewed the trip as an important chance to shed distractions from his everyday grind and focus on issues. “You come out here and take a step back and … everybody forces you to think about stuff.”
Kujawa, one of the trip leaders, said the veterans also were given a half-day solo experience. Each person was dropped off at a private spot on the lake, which allowed him or her time to reflect on an assignment: They wrote a letter to themselves 20 years into the future regarding how they achieved their goals. The letters were collected at the end of the trip and will be returned to the veterans in six months.
Morris brought his leadership as a veteran himself, having participated in a related dog sled expedition for veterans last winter. Outward Bound later hired him. He said the winter expedition was powerful, an experience he wants for other veterans. “I’m working here because I really believe in the value of nature-centered education. It’s a way to build character and life experience.”
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.